Towers powers top-ranked Johnston to shutout of ‘Cats

JOHNSTON – Johnston coach Todd Merical couldn’t have drawn up a better start to the Dragons’ Class 5A Region 1 semifinal.

Haylee Towers, his undefeated sophomore pitcher, struck out the side in Marshalltown’s half of the first inning and then his freshman lead-off hitter Brooke Wilmes blasted a home run over the right field fence to give the top-ranked Dragons an early lead.

That single would have been enough as Towers tossed a two-hitter in the circle, but the Dragons plated three runs in the first and three more in the fourth to eliminate the Bobcats, 7-0.

It was the 15th time Marshalltown was shut out this season. And the Bobcats’ only two hits were infield singles by lone senior Kari Smith and sophomore Leiah Paustian.

“I couldn’t have drawn up that start any better,” said Merical. “The first game in regionals is always the toughest. Marshalltown had nothing to lose. We couldn’t take them lightly and we didn’t.”

The Bobcats came into regionals with a team batting average of .200 and Towers was undefeated, had an earned run average of 0.80 and held her opposition to a .175 batting average.

Those numbers stayed true to form Saturday as Towers struck out 10 and had 1-2-3 innings four times, including the final three frames.

“She mixes it up really well. She can go up-down and in-out and moves it really well,” said Merical of his sophomore hurler. “She competes and can adjust to hitters. Her and our catcher (Addy Pender) work really well together.”

Wilmes came into the game with a team-best .515 batting average and her second homer of the season made it 1-0.

Stanzy Snyder and Lauren Thilges also scored in the first inning after reaching on a walk and a single, respectively. Towers brought in Snyder on an RBI ground out and then Bobcat starter Cassidy Blackford walked Madison Thilges with the bases loaded to make it 3-0.

Merical knew a fast start against a team that ended the season with 22 straight losses was a big deal.

“I think they are much better than the record indicates,” said Merical. “The start was big and that was our goal. We wanted to get off to a good start. I really like Marshalltown’s team. They are going to be good in the future.”

Marshalltown (3-34) put two runners on base in the top of the second inning. Blackford and Maggie Carnahan both reached on errors but also were stranded after Towers got out of the jam with a strikeout.

That was the only real threat the Bobcats had all night as the offense continued to struggle. Towers, on the other hand, improved to 21-0 on the year and now has 115 strikeouts.

“They truly thought they were going to upset someone, and they thought this was going to be the night,” said Marshalltown coach Angie Lovell. “The thing that has hurt us all season long is our execution at the plate. We have to work on our bats. They know that, and we’re going to hit that hard in the offseason.”

Towers doubled with one out in the third and then her pinch runner – Nikia Pope – stole third and scored on Ellen Espeland’s sacrifice fly to right field.

Wilmes singled and scored on one of the Bobcats’ two errors in the fourth inning and then Pender’s two-run double made it 7-0.

“Nobody likes to lose, but we knew this was a very good team,” Lovell said. “I thought our defense was solid. I was really pleased. If this game took place in the middle of the season, it probably goes only three innings. But the girls knew they could play with them. And they had to peck away at us to get it to 7-0.”

It was Johnston’s 12th shutout this season and the Dragons (33-3) have won four straight and 17 of their last 18 games. They will host Tuesday’s regional final against Sioux City East, which advanced after a 12-2, five-inning win over Sioux City North.

Blackford allowed five earned runs on seven hits and struck out two, walked two and hit one in taking the loss in the circle.

Notebook

Smith’s infield single in the third and Paustian’s infield single in the fourth both came with two outs. Johnston’s only three losses have come against No. 2 Dowling Catholic (6-2), No. 5 West Des Moines Valley (5-4) and No. 10 Waukee (4-3). Marshalltown’s most recent win came on June 16 when the Bobcats defeated arch rival Ames 4-3 on a Blackford game-winning two-run home run. They also beat Mason City 7-2 on June 12 and Newton 8-7 on May 29.